Are colleges doing enough to investigate sexual assaults?

CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – Sexual assault is a major problem on college campuses. One in five women, and one in sixteen men will be sexually assaulted before they graduate from college.

A U.S. Senate subcommittee reported in 2014 that 40% of colleges and universities reported not investigating a single sexual assault in the previous five years.

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act or Clery Act is a federal law created in 1990 to address campus sexual assault issues.  The law requires all colleges receiving federal financial aid to keep public logs and report information about crime on and near their campuses.  Each school must also publish and distribute an Annual Campus Security Report to current and prospective students and employees by October 1 every year.

22News obtained federal data from colleges in western Massachusetts, showing the number of sexual assault reports on their campuses from 2012 through 2014. In 2014, UMass had 11 reported sexual assaults, Hampshire College had 8, Smith College had 4, Mount Holyoke had 2, Elms College had 1, Baypath University had none, Westfield State had 9, Western New England University had 2, American International College had 1, Amherst College had 9, and Springfield College had 3.

These reports aren’t always seen by the police, instead, many of them are handled by the colleges themselves.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan told 22News most colleges use hearing boards to investigate allegations, and determine whether a student is responsible of sexual misconduct. “It’s a completely independent process, we’re not aware of what happens in those particular hearings, and when they happen we don’t send anyone to be a part of those hearings,” he said.

These hearing boards vary from school to school. The members usually include students, staff, faculty, and members of the community. The members are required to go through sexual assault training, but they usually aren’t required to share their investigations with the police, or work with anyone who has a law degree.

Under a federal regulation called Title IX, schools are required to conduct an administrative investigation within 60-days of a sexual assault complaint. The timeframe can also vary at times depending on the complexity of the investigation and severity and extent of the incident.

Title IX also requires schools to use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard to determine the outcome of a complaint, and decide on disciplinary action if the board finds it is ‘more likely than not’ that discrimination, harassment and/or violence occurred.

Once a student is found responsible, their disciplinary action can include anything from expulsion, to losing on-campus housing, to being forced to switch classes.

If the sexual assault victim chooses not to report the incident to police, expulsion would be the harshest punishment their attacker would face.

According to 2013 statistics from the Department of Justice, students found responsible of sexual assault were expelled in 30%of cases, and suspended in 47% of cases.

22News spoke to Becky Lockwood, who works with victims of sexual assault at the Center for Women & Community at UMass Amherst.

Lockwood said although most people would like to see rapists end up in jail, she believes the federal government is doing the right thing by leaving it up to the victim to decide whether the assault is reported to police. “I will always land on that the survivors should have the choice of what the process is,” she said.

For many victims of sexual assault, going through the college process seems like the best resource for justice and safety.

Lockwood explained to 22News that many victims don’t want to go through the criminal justice system. Some don’t want to go through the ordeal of a long trial, others worry their attacker won’t get convicted of the crime, since the criminal justice system requires a higher burden of proof.

According to RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, only a quarter of all reported rapes lead to an arrest, only a fifth lead to prosecution, and only half of those prosecutions result in felony convictions.

Still, some critics argue colleges shouldn’t have the authority to handle sexual assault cases themselves.

22News did some digging and discovered the federal government is always satisfied with the way colleges investigate sexual assaults.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a list of the higher education institutions under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.

The government opened 304 investigations of colleges for possibly mishandling reports of sexual assaults in 2012. So far, 50 cases have been resolved, and 254 remain open.

Hampshire College, Amherst College, UMass Amherst, and Western New England University are all on that list. We wanted to find out how these colleges have handled cases in the past. We sent them each a Public Information Request, asking for the disciplinary records of students found responsible of sexual assault between 2014 and 2015.

Hampshire College and Western New England University declined our request.   UMass is working on it, and Amherst College sent us the results of their investigations from 2014.

Out of 5 reported incidents of non-consensual intercourse, 3 students were found responsible. One of those students was expelled, and another student wasn’t allowed to graduate. We’ve contacted them to find out what happened to the third student.

Out of 3 reported incidents of non-consensual contact, which includes any form of fondling or groping, in 2014,   2 students were found responsible. Neither student was expelled, or suspended. One of the cases was dismissed.

22News discovered if a student is expelled for sexual assault in Massachusetts, they could just transfer to another school.

Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Suhl told 22News that’s another potential problem with the system. “That person could go to another campus, and are still going to be in the community, so the problem is a little bit bigger than just the campus,” she said.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers told 22News New York and Virginia, are the only states that have passed legislation requiring the notation of disciplinary actions on transcripts.

We also looked into local sexual assault cases that ended up in court and learned when victims do take their cases to the police, they can, at times, get justice.

In 2012, a freshman at UMass was gang-raped in her dorm room. She took her attackers to court, and watched them get convicted and were sentenced to several years in prison.

 

UNIVERSITY HEARING BOARDS:
UMass Amherst:
https://www.umass.edu/dean_students/conduct/hearing-board

Western New England University:
https://www1.wne.edu/human-resources/doc/Title%20IX/TitleIXDiscriminationPolicy.pdf

Hampshire College:
https://handbook.hampshire.edu/node/72
https://www.hampshire.edu/student-life/sexual-respect-and-title-ix

Amherst College:
https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/media/Amherst-College-Sexual-Misconduct-Data-Report-Calendar-Year-2014.pdf

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